One of many nice things about being a very good baseball team, like the Royals are, is that when spring training opens, you have a pretty good idea about perhaps 22 or 23 of your 25 roster spots. In general, you know what your starting lineup, rotation, and back of the bullpen will look like. Rather than focus on positional battles, a team like the Royals can focus on getting guys at-bats and innings, as well as the important things like suntans and golf scores.
But there are a few battles going on in Surprise for roster spots. Our own David Lesky took a look at those on Monday. However, I would like to focus on a player who has a good chance to make the Opening Day roster, as well as point out that even (perhaps, especially) on a team with playoff expectations, every roster spot is important.
The player in question is Whit Merrifield. If you mostly follow the major-league team, you might not know the name or know much about the player. But Merrifield has been in the system for six seasons now, ever since the Royals drafted him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft out of the University of South Carolina. The Royals selected him just days after he drove in the title-winning run in the College World Series, the final one played at old Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.
I would not call Merrifield a top prospect or anything, especially at age 27, but his bat has been solid enough at every level to keep him moving up. The Royals started him off at Class A Burlington in 2010 (a sign the organization thought highly of him, as new draftees usually start in rookie or a short-season league), and he was promoted to Advanced Class A Wilmington for 2011. Wilmington is notorious as a bad place to hit, but Merrifield batted .262/.337/.369 there, then improved slightly in 2012 to .258/.333/.389. That got him moved up to Class AA Northwest Arkansas for a month or so, and he remained there in 2013, hitting .270/.319/.391. The 2014 season proved to be his best yet, with a .278/.366/.463 line in 44 games for the Naturals, then .340/.373/.474 in 76 games at Class AAA Omaha.
He fell off a bit last season, hitting .265/.317/.364. On the bright side, he doubled his stolen base total from 16 to 32, and got caught just nine times after being caught 11 times in 2014. He also improved his contact rate, striking out 66 times in 594 plate appearances last year after striking out 79 times in 535 plate appearances in 2014.
So while Merrifield’s bat may not be superlative, it looks like he has two skills we know the Royals prize: ability to make contact and speed (plus smart baserunning). Plus, he did bulk up a bit over the winter, possibly adding some power to his game. So far this spring (heading into Tuesday night’s game), he’s hitting .321/.355/.643, albeit in just 31 plate appearances. He is also very versatile defensively, having played every position except catcher in the minors (he even pitched an inning for Northwest Arkansas in 2013).
Royals manager Ned Yost said as much last year, telling the Kansas City Star, “He’s been impressive with his versatility” and “His best infield position is second base. His best outfield position is probably left field. But he can play anywhere, right field. He can actually play a little center field, in a bind. He can play third. I mean, shortstop is his worst position, obviously. But he can play first, he can play second, he can play third.”1
Those quotes are from last spring, when Merrifield very nearly made the roster. This year, with Jarrod Dyson out until a couple of weeks after Opening Day, he has a great chance to make the team to start the season. It looks like Paulo Orlando will be the right fielder to start the year, with Brett Eibner, Reymond Fuentes, or Travis Snider as the fourth outfielder. Christian Colon is probably going to be the backup infielder. Would the Royals want a second reserve outfielder or reserve infielder? Merrifield could be both, the ideal compromise.
The catch, of course, is that Merrifield is not on the 40-man roster, which is currently full. So if Merrifield does make the team, somebody on that 40-man roster could be lost to another team.
Now, you might wonder if it matters. Yost is famous for not using his bench much. Would the 25th man make a difference?
I would submit that he can. In 2014, the 25th man (in my estimation) on the Opening Day roster was Pedro Ciriaco. On May 29 that year, the Royals faced the Blue Jays in Toronto. You might remember this game; it is somewhat famous as the game where Jose Reyes made a throwing error on a Salvador Perez ground ball that could have ended the game. Instead, the tying run scored and the Royals won 8-6 in 10 innings. What you probably don’t remember is that Ciriaco doubled to drive in a run, then scored a run, in a fifth-inning rally. In the 10th, he was hit by a pitch, the second runner to reach base in the inning. He ended up scoring the eighth and final run of the game. Kansas City won 15 out of 19 games beginning with that win, and of course every win that year wound up being important for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.
Last year, Orlando would probably be considered the 25th man on the Opening Day roster. Either him or Colon. Of course, both made significant contributions to a World Series winner.
The thing is, when a team has playoff expectations (not just hopes, but expectations), every game counts. Every roster spot counts. Every player needs to be able to contribute positively. For the record, PECOTA’s projection for Merrifield this year is 0.4 WARP. Not great, but a positive contribution. I feel comfortable saying that if Merrifield does make the team, he will not hurt it.
1. Andy McCullough, “Whit Merrifield Still In Mix For Last Spot On Royals Bench,” Kansas City Star, March 30, 2015.